Nightmare in Tokyo

Somewhere, Jill Ellis has probably been muttering, "This ain't easy, folks."

Trying to make sense of the USA's 3-0 loss to Sweden in their opening game begins by understanding just how amazing it was that the Americans have won two consecutive World Cup championships.

The second one, in particular.

Just think back to the run of games in the knockout stage: Spain, France, England and the Netherlands. That's four European teams that all gave the USA close games. And one more European team than is competing in Japan.

One of those three teams, of course, is Sweden, which the USA also faced in France -- for the fifth straight World Cup -- in the third game of group play after both teams were already through to the round of 16.

The USA won the 2019 Women's World Cup with talent, guts and a bit of luck. That included the opportunity to ease into the tournament with games against Thailand and Chile to open group play.

How did we get from a 13-0 win against Thailand to open France 2019 to a 3-0 loss against Sweden to open the Tokyo Olympics? (Both margins of victory could have been a lot more.)

After Wednesday's game, Vlatko Andonovski described the result as "a bit of a shock," but the outcome wasn't exactly a surprise if you saw the USA play in recent months. Five games, five shutout wins. But the USA wasn't particularly sharp in beating a bunch of weak opponents.

The U.S. players hit the same aimless passes, made the same dribbles through no one and had the same poor touches in the warm-up series as they did against Sweden. The only difference was they could always win the ball back easily against its hopeless sparring partners.

If the USA faced a team with a plan and players and purpose, it was clear that it might get torn apart, at least the way it had been playing and it was still constructed.

There was little doubt that Andonovski was going to stick with the veterans: nine starters from the 2019 World Cup final in Lyon in the starting lineup against Sweden, all 11 starters from the Netherlands game in the Sweden game by the hour mark.

The concern was how the USA's aging team -- nine players 30 or older got in Wednesday's game -- would hold up in the heat of Japan and through the brutal schedule (maximum of six games over only 17 days). But the surprise of the opener was just how badly many of the "younger" and usually dependable players played.

There is also a sameness about the U.S. players -- what they do well, what they don't -- that was eventually going to be exploited if they came up against an organized team like the Swedes coached by Peter Gerhardsson.

So many of the issues affecting the USA are related to the pandemic.

In a Covid-free world, the USA could have prepared against better (European) opponents that would have been willing to travel. The Olympics could have not come at a worse time, given the current Covid situation in Japan, leaving athletes stuck in their hotel rooms, "the reality of the tournament," as Kelley O'Hara described it on her call with the U.S. and Swedish media on Monday.

The lack of atmosphere at Tokyo Stadium, where no fans were allowed, certainly didn't help, but the USA looked lifeless against Sweden from the get-go.

Where does it go from here? Things can't get much worse.

The amended roster rules give Andonovski room to make game-to-game changes. But only 18 players get to dress each game. It will be one thing to bench some of the world champions, it will be another thing to banish them to the stands, the same awkward issues coaches faced at Euro 2020, where rosters were expanded from 23 to 26 players but only 23 dressed each game.

The good news is that the USA rarely loses at the Olympics. Sweden is only the second team to ever defeat the USA (the Swedes' shootout win in the 2016 quarterfinals went down as a tie). The USA's two previous Olympic losses were to Norway. The first was in the 2000 gold-medal game.

After Wednesday's loss, U.S. players quickly recalled the run to gold in 2008, which began with the second loss, a 2-0 opening defeat to the Norwegians after a performance almost as bad as the one was against Sweden. (Two defensive errors in the first four minutes cost the USA goals in what we termed the "Nightmare in Qinhuangdao.")

A ray of hope, perhaps, after the nightmare in Tokyo.

Photo: Photo Kishimoto/DPPI/Icon Sportswire

18 comments about "Nightmare in Tokyo".
  1. beautiful game, July 21, 2021 at 10:14 p.m.

    Tune-ups against minnows dulls the senses. 

  2. Ben Myers replied, July 22, 2021 at 12:48 p.m.

    Spot on!

  3. Peter Bechtold, July 21, 2021 at 10:16 p.m.

    Good comments, PK. Those of us longer in the tooth have noticed for some time that the USWNT has been in decline and that several other nations have been improving for reasons that can be explained separately. I mentioned on another thread with SA that the USWNT has not been very impressive for the experienced soccer observer: in France '19 they did not outplay any team in the knockout stages, but they OVERPOWERED them(and had some luck with scheduling and questionable refereeing, esp. against France). Some of the early teams had better players; note how several of our stars had gone to England's big clubs this past Spring but did not impress, and also got surprisingly little playing time, given their reputations.
    As we all know, what works against inferior opposition does not necessarily work against top sides.
    There is another problem,IMO: In the Anglo-Saxon world too much emphasis is placed on results. As long as the team wins, the emphasis in reporting goes to goals scored/conceded. Not nearly enough coverage is given as to how well they are playing. Sweden clearly OUTPLAYED the USA today, and this cannot be remedied by re-doubling one's effort. The Swedes(and Brazilians today) looked like a real soccer team; the US Women rarely do because their aim is limited to defeating their opponents, who are usually at a level much too low for a challenge.

  4. Santiago 1314 replied, July 22, 2021 at 8:28 p.m.

    Peter, you keep on bringing up the Anglo-Saxons, What you got against the Angles and the Sax.???... You Gauling me, but let's be Franks... Jutes dòn't need to be Racial against "Whitee"... I think the Celts and the Picts would be upset of being left Out...This group of Players has only one thing to Fall Back On...
    Julie Foudy said; “Don’t Panic, the Team will Bounce back in The Manner that is in Their DNA.”
    Our "DNA" has Crumbled....
    So, Now we are going to find out what these “Woke” Girls are Made of... All you have Left is the American Fighting Spirit... But, When you have Spent the Last 2 Years; Attacking your Federation, Country, National Anthem and Flag... IS IT STILL IN THERE.???
    Fight FOR Your Country, Sing your National Anthem, Put your Hand Over Your Heart or Put your Head between your Legs, and “Kiss Your A$$ Goodbye”

  5. frank schoon replied, July 23, 2021 at 1:35 a.m.

    Santiago, great and creative comments about "   When you have Spent the Last 2 Years; Attacking your Federation, Country, National Anthem and Flag... IS IT STILL IN THERE"...EXACTLY!!!!!!!!!  These women spend more time criticizing this great country of ours than looking at their own failings as players. Reading Your various posted all over the past week or so is a reprieve on the damn mosquito bites I've been enduring because in Holland they don't use screens in their windows.....

    Peter, you made some good points, but please leave out Anglo-Saxon stuff.....for everyday it seems us anglos are being bombarded for everything that is going wrong in this world....

  6. David Ruder, July 21, 2021 at 11:54 p.m.

    They need to get some younger players on that team who want to play and not complain and act like big stars. They should thank Sweden to bring that organization back to reality.

  7. Bob Ashpole, July 22, 2021 at 2:07 a.m.

    Good article, Paul. Losing 3-0 is no worse than losing 1-0. It is what commonly happens to teams that fall behind and have to chase the game, i.e., take increased risks.

    Losing the opening match is not what matters. S*** happens. This is not a situation where US success depends on avoiding strong opponents in the knockout stage. What matters is what happens next. The USWNT is still in control of its destiny. Winning the first match would not have made winning the gold medal any easier.

  8. John Bauman, July 22, 2021 at 6:15 a.m.

    I watched the game early in the morning.  They were terrible!  They looked like they didn't care about winning.  I'd really like to see the pass completed stats.

    I am not concerned (as some others were) with taking the knee, because it was done for the same reasons that it is done in The Premier League.  It is interesting, thouigh, that every other country seems to know (and sing) thier national anthem. Perhaps this has something to do with the way they played?

  9. Santiago 1314 replied, July 22, 2021 at 8:47 p.m.

    I have No problem with Players "Taking The Knee" to Highlight Racial Injustice... Just DON'T do it during the National Anthem... At Least they are All Facing in the Right Direction during the Anthem,  that's a Start... Maybe Hand Over the Heart will be Next...Nah... Too much Team Unity that way.!!! (Sarc)

  10. Goal Goal, July 22, 2021 at 11:03 a.m.

    There have been comments here and other sights about politics shouldn't be brought into the comments about the women's team kneeling.  Excuse me!  The team brought politics to the game when most kneeled to show support for the BLM group which is a radical group at best.  Where in heck is the US Olympic Committee?  They are representing this country not their personal views.  I say send them-they shouldn't be there in the first place.

  11. Andrew Rieger replied, July 22, 2021 at 1:33 p.m.

    The team brought kneeliing into the conversation and just like they should have freedom of expression, you are certainly welcome to express your unhappiness to them. That said, wading through pages of comments here about kneeling is not why most people came to the site. No matter how angry you are, it's tough to draw a line from kneeling to poor play.

    Please keep complaining (or cheering) about kneeling at whatever political site you prefer, but if this site could be about soccer, that would be lovely.

  12. R2 Dad, July 22, 2021 at 11:08 a.m.

    Everyone here understands it's only a matter of time before the other countries catch up. The USWNT have settled on this formula, and it's reinforced by winning a tournament then going on a money-spinning vicotry lap around the country. That has to stop, in favor of pursing better competition, changing the filters we use on the player pool, and changing a few head coaches. It won't be enough if we don't medal in this tournament. The USWNT needs their Brazil 1 Germany 7 moment to clarify the challenge ahead, because they can't stop doing what they're doing. "We've only lost X matches". "Look at our goal differential". "We won the X tournament". "We have the best players". And my favorite, "We have the top 2 best XIs in the world".

  13. Kevin Leahy, July 22, 2021 at 12:04 p.m.

    Please tell me what playing in an empty stadium has to do with anything? Sweden was playing in the same stadium! That is like saying it was hot outside. This team is very experienced and should be stable. The biggest fear leading into these games should have been the average age of the team. The model of college players being your pipeline moving forward is obsolete. Guess we will find out real soon what is left in the tank and the coaching staff. It does not bode well for the next World Cup that, there aren't more young players getting this competition.

  14. Santiago 1314 replied, July 22, 2021 at 8:34 p.m.

    The USWNT has been Living off the Glory of Past Achievements... They get a "Boost", Feed OFF,  Screaming Girls in the Stands and Sam's Army cheering them on with Chants of USA, USA, USA, ..."We Believe That We Can Win" ... They have no Internal Desire to Represent this Country or Federation... And with No External Stimulus,  you can see Flat Emotionally they are. 

  15. John Daly, July 22, 2021 at 1:03 p.m.

    Those of us who have been involved in womens soccer in the US for many years have been saying for almost all of those years that the Europeans, in particular, and the South Americans are catching up on us. That is now manifesting itself and was apparent when we were involved in close games at the World Cup against the hosts France, England, Sweden, Spain and Holland. We came through those games but the alarm bells were definitely ringing.

    Sweden was outstanding in almost every aspect of the game yesterday. In no particular order - Their crossing and heading led to three goals, their pressing disrupted us and denied us the kind of space we deserately need because of our inability to play in tight spaces, and finally, their comfort on the ball and exquiste pace they put on their passes.

    Alyssa Naeher had never been subjected to such an interrogation of her goalkeeping ability as she was against Sweden. She kept us in the game with some excellent saves.

    We are entering a critial phase in our soccer evolution. We need to produce players with better technical ability, a more sophisticated understanding of the game and the nuances our European and South American opponents have in abundance. We need to put more emphasis on developing those qualities and less on speed, power and athleticism. That is not to say that we exclude the latter.

    Having said all that, do not be surprised if we rebound, meet Sweden again, and beat them. But this could be our last hurrah as number one for a while!

  16. John Soares, July 22, 2021 at 1:19 p.m.

    USA played very poorly. Never seen them this flat.
    They lost. Deservedly so. Credit to Sweden as well.
    BUT, it's one game, don't bury them just yet.
    We are happily spoiled, used to no loss streaks of 40 and 50 plus.
    No other national team in the world (men or women) has come close.
    I feel sorry for New Zealand :(      :)

    Naeher played well.... the team let her down.

  17. ARISTIDES SASTRE, July 22, 2021 at 3:30 p.m.

    There us no question that Sweden was the better team but the head that hit the goalpost by Rose Lavelle in the 44th minute could have changed the game if it had gone in. As a coach for over 35 years, there is nothing that was more dispiriting than dominating a team and having them score in the last minute of a half to either tie a game or go ahead. It would have been really interesting to see how both teams would have reacted if that ball had gone in.

  18. beautiful game replied, July 22, 2021 at 6:46 p.m.

    Ifs, buts, and maybes, somehow become talking points after a loss. 

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